If you go to any professional political conference, you’ll likely hear folks bemoaning the fact that it’s hard to find qualified people to hire.
The simple truth is that the labor needs of modern campaigns have outpaced our efforts at recruiting and training talent. There aren’t enough humans with the skills required to do the increasingly sophisticated and often baffling work of reaching people online.
I get it. We’re always strapped for time and resources and training can easily get bumped from the priority list. And in a world where some funders aim to keep overhead low, deep infrastructure building like training and pipeline programs often get left on the cutting room floor.
Yet ask anyone who has tried to hire someone in the past few years, particularly in data or digital, and you'll understand immediately the importance of training. Not as an administrative consideration, but as a means of being truly mission effective. Beyond the obvious hard skills benefits, there are some big reasons why we should make this a priority.
Training is a mechanism for diversifying our campaigns and organizations.
Imagine the kind of folks who can afford to spend a summer in DC as an unpaid intern. Not that internships are our only, or most effective, training mechanism. But it’s a common path to professional politics and is often followed with best success by young (often white) people with means.
Training programs designed to place folks on campaigns and in organizations present an opportunity to ensure that underrepresented communities have a pathway to professional opportunities, especially in digital, data, and technology where we have the greatest need for talent.
Studies show that organizations not only look different but perform better because diversifying staff means diversifying ideas and experiences.
What better way to make sure our campaigns and organizations are as diverse as we say we want them to be than by supporting, utilizing, and funding training programs?
The roles we fill often have little to do with our college major.
Take me, for example. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I am not exactly using my multiple degrees in Bass Trombone Performance. Yet every day I am grateful for my conservatory training as it taught me how to collaborate intuitively, break down large, complex projects to small action items, think creatively, and problem solve on the fly.
The only reason I am putting those skills to use for democracy is because a training organization invested in me, giving me the knowledge, skills, and legitimacy that allowed me to turn my passion into a vocation.
Most often the skills required to do our work aren’t afforded by a college degree and the only way to gain the knowledge and experience required is through practical, hands-on training.
We often don’t have the bandwidth to train hard skills on a campaign.
A recent study showed that people who live in DC work too much. That’s not to say that our work only happens in the Beltway, but that concept should seem familiar to anyone who works in politics or advocacy.
Maybe you’re running a campaign operation that only lasts through Election Day. Maybe you’re overworked and understaffed, as many of us are. Through all our shifting priorities and the roles we’re expected to perform on a daily basis, what time is left for us to spend training and teaching hard skills to our colleagues?
The need is real and our time is limited. Investing in training operations outside of our campaigns and organizations by professionals dedicated to running sophisticated, thorough training and pipeline efforts can help ease that burden.
Training your staff doesn’t have to be a massive institutional investment
Training doesn’t always mean pausing your work to send a colleague to a multi-day affair or bringing everyone to an offsite retreat. There are models that function in tandem with your existing work, DIY modules led by subject matter experts, coaching and mentorship programs, and courses available. There are many options if we’re willing to explore them.
Here are a few practical things we can do:
- Invest in internal capacity building and skills through external training. Give your staff a budget to seek outside training and accreditation.
- Fund institutions that do training work.
- Shift focus away from external vendors and consultants and invest in bringing expertise in-house.
If we want more people engaged in the democratic process, both personally and professionally, we have to invest in quality, intensive, hard-skills-based training. It’s not only a professional imperative — it’s the right thing to do.
There’s no shortage of people passionate about politics right now. Imagine how many people we could bring into our work if we invested in training them. We never know who might be sitting on the sidelines waiting for the opportunity to get into the game.
Sean Carlson is the founder of Apollo Collaborative, a digital and communications agency that focuses on collaboration, capacity building, and training. Formerly Chief Strategy Officer at Revolution Messaging and Senior Digital Director at FitzGibbon Media, he was also a teaching and training fellow at the New Organizing Institute.